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Gearing Up For Success: Preparing for a Quantum Leap in Productivity

“Doing is a quantum leap from imagining.” — Barbara Sher, American speaker, author and goal achievement guru.

Gearing Up For Success:  Preparing for a Quantum Leap in Productivity by Laura Stack #productivityIn physics, the term “quantum leap” refers to an electron’s sudden jump to a higher energy state without, apparently, passing through the intervening distance. At subatomic scales, things happen that would never happen in our “big” world. Yet, it’s still such a fascinating and attractive notion that people have taken to using the term “quantum leap” when referring to spectacular feats.

While it doesn’t quite mesh—quantum effects can’t really manifest at human scales—it does serve as a useful shorthand for sudden improvement in performance or productivity. But unlike an electron’s quantum leap, the productive equivalent leaves clues as to how it happened. Let’s look under the microscope to determine how.

1. Study the situation. Take a close look at every aspect of your team and workplace setting you can think of: the individual players, the set of projects on your collective plate, what you can see coming over the horizon, likelihood of near-future changes, your productivity level, your processes and workflow system, your tools and applications, the other groups you interact with, and the environment. How would you rate your condition: average, below average, or above?

2. Define what a quantum leap would look like. It wouldn’t be a simple improvement—it would be a massive overhaul in how something is done. Perhaps a new technology or a new process. Determine what big productivity step you would take if you could. Paint a picture of the ideal productive workforce of the future!

3. Partner on the mission. Get your team together and share this vision of the future. Explain your ideas and specifically request their assistance. Brainstorm with them how you could magically jump to that place, if you could. Explain that you perceive this meeting as a springboard for bigger and better things, and get them caught up on the mission.

4. Create your roadmap. Document the specific goals that result by drawing a map like a treasure map. They should be big enough to be seen from a great distance away and far enough away that everyone must stretch to reach them. Agree on where you are now with a big “X” and the change that would have to occur. Back in the 1970s, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs set out to change the world of computing by making its power available to everyday people—a quantum leap. Both, in the personas of their companies Microsoft and Apple Computers, could see the future. They had a good idea of how to get there, and the team helped achieve it, point by point.

5. SWOT the challenges. Using the SWOT method, identify your Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Determine, as Gates and Jobs did, where your Strengths and Opportunities will take you, and how they will get you there. While drawing your map, pencil in the “mountain ranges” and “rivers” (Threats) that will block your progress. Should you go around the big obstacles, or power straight through? Can you power through? Why not? Who or what will stop you? Remember, this is a team exercise, so have your people involved with every step. Some may surprise you with their innovative suggestions.

6. Start the bulldozer. As a modern leader, your role makes you a visionary, a cheerleader, and a facilitator: noble responsibilities no matter how you slice them. As a facilitator, you have the honor of making it easier for your people to follow along your chosen path and do their jobs. In the oil pipeline industry, surveying, and similar businesses requiring workers to cross great swaths of land, a “landman” precedes the crew, negotiating rights-of-way, easements, and other permissions from the many landowners along the way. You act as the team’s landman, removing obstacles to their advancement. In a sense you’re also a bulldozer, smoothing the way, filling in potholes, and clearing out trees and stumps that might slow them down. This may mean acquiring training for everyone who needs it or providing new phones, or an upgraded software—whatever it takes to make peoples’ lives easier and their work more profitable.

Poised on the Springboard

Just remember: there’s no such thing as the perfect time for anything, and if you wait for it, you may never begin. Instead, these six steps will help your team get a running start into your quantum leap into productivity stardom.

How to Lead By Stepping Back: Five Steps to Delegation

“The best executive is one who has sense enough to pick good people to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” –- Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States.

How to Lead By Stepping Back: Five Steps to Delegation by Laura Stack #productivity #leadershipIf you’re a reader of my blogs, newsletters, and Tweets, you’ll know I’ve returned repeatedly to the topic of delegation over the years—and for good reason. As a leader, there’s no more effective and productive way to handle all your responsibilities. Leadership positions come weighted down with more than their fair share of tasks, because by definition a strategic initiative is more than one person can handle. Effective leaders must parcel out that work and a good deal of the associated authority, so they can continue to think strategically and get things done through others.

I was on a board of directors in a non-profit association where the CEO didn’t have an executive assistant, in an attempt to save money. He was scheduling his own calls, sending out minutes, and spending his time on administrative duties not appropriate for the hundreds of thousands of dollars he was paid—he was actually wasting money. When I became president, I told him in no uncertain terms I expected him to hire an assistant to free him up to focus on the strategic responsibilities we were paying him to fulfill. Ultimately, delegation extends and enriches your leadership, because it allows you to accomplish what can’t be done without you and moves the organization forward.

Like any other business system, the ability to delegate doesn’t leap to life fully formed. I totally understood why he didn’t hire someone, because I used to be the same way. Because of my desire to take on the world, delegation has been a steep learning curve. I could do any of these tasks—and so can you—so it takes time to build delegation into a profitable skill. Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. Do Your Homework. Study exactly what your new position entails, ideally before you take the reins. If this isn’t possible, spend the first few weeks at least asking questions and understanding how everything “works.” Examine the staff, the roles, and the existing delegation structure, and see if it makes sense to you. You may be able to ascend into the position with everything already just the way it should be—but that’s not likely—that’s why you’re there.

2. Determine what you should be doing. You’ll need to determine what should be reshuffled or tasked. There will inevitably be certain jobs only you can do (perhaps deciding on budgets, influencing stakeholders, or closing big deals); typically, these are the ones that earn the organization the most money and justify your salary. If you step into the C-Suite, you’ll need to do high-level tasks suited to your position: approving entry into new markets, liaising with the Board of Directors, communicating with the press, or arranging new financing. Mid-level managers should be facilitating their employees’ performance, acting as coaches, helping employees deal with change, and lobbying for the resources they need.

3. Delegate what you should not be doing. Delegate anything else that is NOT at the top of your priority list. Anything you can hire someone else to do means that you aren’t the only one uniquely qualified to do it. If you are to make the best use of your time, you need to free up everything that isn’t a good use of it. In a recent blog, I introduced my readers to PetraAquatics, Inc. a real-life, big-city environment services firm whose name has been changed to protect the guilty. I know a former middle manager well, and he recalls less-than-fondly his department head’s tendency to take on work others didn’t do to his satisfaction. It took a while, but ultimately this “reverse delegation” broke the departmental workflow system, and briefly killed productivity. First it turned the boss into an ogre as his micromanaging overwhelmed him and everyone else; then it all but put him in the hospital with exhaustion. It took a while for things to get back into order.

4. Pick the right person and make the hand-off. Define what the end result will be if a task is done correctly. Note I did not say the step-by-step how-to instructions of how to do it. Define your expectations: (a) the outcome, (b) the criterion for success, (c) any budget constraints, (d) authority limitations if any, (e) reporting requirements, and (f) milestones. When assigning the task, explicitly explain these details. Let the person get creative in how it’s done.

5. Ensure understanding and get buy-in. Ask for a reframe of what the other person understood you to say. “So what I hear you saying is…” Resist the urge to get impatient as you walk through this process. As a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force, my father taught me that repeating orders back to the Commanding Officer is Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), because a misinterpreted order can literally result in death and disaster. This (hopefully) isn’t the case for your organization, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Reinforce to the employee that any and all questions are welcome.

6. Follow-up. You’re heard the saying, “Trust, but verify.” Delegation is the situation the saying was invented for. You don’t dump a task on someone and forget about it—that’s abdication, not delegation. You can’t just task the job, check it off your list, and forget about it. Some of the biggest errors I’ve made as a leader happened when I trusted too much, never checked in, and heard about problems too late to avoid a crisis. Instead, program the milestones into your time management system and check in at agreed-upon timeframes. If someone needs help, lacks ability, or is simply slacking, you’ll be able to catch it in time and respond appropriately. Coach where requested and/or needed.

Duck the Boomerang

In part, your ability to lead effectively arises from your ability to delegate—and make your delegation stick. Too many of us end up taking back projects a direct report can’t handle and making them our own again. Or worse yet, we leave great projects to stagnate on our list, because we don’t take the time to walk through these steps.

If you’re doing things you shouldn’t, or things that should be done aren’t getting done, you either don’t have the right team, you don’t trust people enough because they lack the ability, or you’re a paranoid control freak. Offer the training people need, equip them properly, shuffle tasks around, or allow people to discover their next opportunity. You have enough to do. You can’t take on the work of your subordinates too, especially not when your salary level will erode the profitability and productivity of the task, no matter how well you do it. Delegate your tasks, and make them stick—or kill your personal productivity, your team’s productivity, and your organization’s productivity.

Sharing For Success: Smashing Data Silos and Breaking Up Fiefdoms

“Data are becoming the new raw material of business.” — Craig Mundie, Head of Research and Strategy at Microsoft.

Sharing For Success: Smashing Data Silos and Breaking Up Fiefdoms by Laura Stack #productivityGiven the importance of information technology (IT) in the modern business environment, IT terms have inevitably leaked into the common parlance of today’s office. For example, “data silos” occur when incompatible systems lack an interface through which they can share data. Databases become isolated from each other, and it becomes increasingly difficult to collect all the data needed to make effective decisions.

Often this becomes institutionalized. Groups within the organization consider themselves isolated entities, with no need or desire to work together. Some even compete for limited resources. Ultimately, productivity stagnates due to lack of cooperation, cross-fertilization of ideas, and jealous guarding of proprietary data. Some departments or teams essentially became their own little fiefdoms, where one has to go hat-in-hand to the leader to make any progress at all.

Here’s a real-life example of how this works and can go wrong. PetraAquatics, Ltd.¹ is a mid-sized environmental firm located in a large city. A sprightly organization in the 1980s and early 1990s, the various departments worked together to accomplish their goals; for example, the biologists assisted archaeologists in their site surveys, and archaeologists reported to the biologists their sightings of rare plants and animals that the biology team had been hired to count. But in the mid-1990s, the owner—who had driven the mission and vision of the company more than anyone realized—went into semi-retirement and hired a professional CEO/President.

By the late 1990s, the business had contracted bureaucratitis. Administration expanded far faster than the rest of the company. Some leaders began to jealously guard their power and data. As profits dropped, the administrators initiated an unwise series of layoffs mostly targeted at low-paid field workers—those who actually earned the money that paid for the overhead. This caused a downward spiral that ended only when the owner reclaimed the presidency and immediately reorganized. With the new openness he demanded and his mandate to work toward common goals, the organization became profitable again in the early 2000s.

Clearly, in order to survive in a business arena where faster, smarter, and more agile is the name of the game, your team or organization can’t allow resource and data clogs to limit its ability to advance quickly.

Technology vs. Human Nature

If your data has literally piled up in silos behind incompatible systems, per the original IT meaning, then find ways to link those systems or just replace the balky ones; port the old data to the new systems; and ensure they’ll remain compatible well into the future. The cost is overshadowed by the costs of trying to move forward while crippled by lack of data. But what about the silos that result from a human unwillingness to cooperate, such as in PetraAquatics’ case? Here’s how to clear those blockages:

1. Unify from the top down. However distant they may seem, the attitudes pervading a company trickle down from the top. When the leadership maintains efficient control over the mission and vision, everyone wins. You may have no direct access or influence over upper management, but at the very least you can control how your own team thinks and reacts.

2. Encourage a collaborative environment. Reach out to other leaders, opening up your own information to them and urging them to do the same for you. Show them how much you can profit when you remember you’re actually members of the same team, and work together to solve problems and fatten the bottom line. When the business works, everyone benefits.

3. Make “cross-disciplinary” your watchword. Don’t let the narrow constraints of your particular field blind you. If one of the VPs at McDonald’s hadn’t had an open mind when he went out to make a deposit at a drive-through bank, the company might never have pioneered the drive-through restaurant—a multibillion dollar idea adapted from an entirely different type of business. Keep your eyes open for good ideas from any source. At PetraAquatics, the archaeology department also conducted geoarchaeological assessments, applying the principles of geology to archaeology in ways that enriched their reports and earned them kudos from clients. For a while, the archaeology department kept PetraAquatics afloat during an otherwise unprofitable period.

4. Clear the deadwood. As you smash silos and break up fiefdoms, you may have to dismiss, demote, or “laterally promote” the individuals who caused the problems in the first place. At PetraAquatics, the President brought back the profitable field workers and laid off the least productive administrators—including a number of Ph.D.s, and one manager who refused to let others access a government postings database the company depended on to find work.

Hang Together

As Benjamin Franklin once pointed out to his fellow Founding Fathers, “If we do not hang together, we will surely hang separately.” The same goes for any modern business. When teams and departments work at cross purposes or simply refuse to work together, the outcome becomes uncertain, damaging the organization’s stability. Rather than allow that to happen, unify yours from the top down, reach out to other groups, consider ideas from outside your field, and allow people who don’t want to hang together an opportunity to find another opportunity.

¹PetraAquatics is a real company, though I’ve changed the name to hide its identity.